By David Hebblethwaite
Ever since the Clarke Award began publishing its list of submitted titles, it has been fun to try to guess what the shortlist might be. Of course, this is an almost impossible task, not just because there are so many options, but also because the judges will, most likely, be working from a deeper base of knowledge – they’ve read all the books; you or I almost certainly have not.
The task of compiling a shortlist is slightly different for the shadow Clarke juror, because there is more scope to set a personal agenda. What do I want my shortlist to be? This question came into sharp focus when I looked at the list of submissions, and realised that I wouldn’t want to shortlist any of the books that I’d already read.
So I have had to fall back on books that I would like to read. On that basis, I decided to orient my shortlist around the idea of discovery, focusing primarily on authors I hadn’t read much before, and taking note of a few strong recommendations from trusted sources.
In alphabetical order of author surname, my six titles are:
The Power — Naomi Alderman. This is the one title that, before submissions were revealed, I was certain I would shortlist (if submitted, which I expected it to be). Set in a future where women have gained the ability to discharge bolts of electricity, there was praise for it all over my Twitter feed around publication time. The only work of Alderman’s that I’ve read previously is her story in Granta Best of Young British Writers 4. I enjoyed it and was keen to try one of her novels. She’s a writer with feet in both ‘genre’ and ‘mainstream’ literary cultures, and I’ll be interested to see how that plays out in The Power.
The Many Selves of Katherine North — Emma Geen. I was first pointed towards this debut novel when I saw my fellow shadow juror Jonathan McCalmont praising it. It’s the story of a young woman tr who works projecting her consciousness into the bodies of animals for research purposes, and begins to suspect the motives of her employer. Would I have chosen to read this book on the synopsis alone? I honestly don’t know, but that’s where recommendations become so powerful.
Graft — Matt Hill. This selection is also based on a recommendation, this time from Nina Allan, and admittedly in respect of Hill’s first novel, The Folded Man. Still, this was enough to make me pay attention. when Graft appeared on the Clarke submissions list. The book promises to be a near-future thriller taking in themes of human trafficking and genetic enhancement. Well, there are a lot of near-future thrillers in contemporary science fiction, and they don’t always cut the mustard. I hope this one does.
The Gradual — Christopher Priest. I’m allowing myself one familiar author on my shortlist. I am a long-time admirer of Priest’s work, and have been excited at how his most recent books have pushed the novel form and drawn on themes from across his career. On the face of it, The Gradual sounds more conventional: a composer grows up in a fascist state that is constantly at war, and finds his perceptions of the world changed when he is sent on a cultural tour. But the novel is set in Priest’s mysterious Dream Archipelago, where reality is never certain; and I also hear that time travel is at play in these pages. I think this is going to be another singular work from Priest.
The Core of the Sun — Johanna Sinisalo (tr. Lola Rogers). I am the link between the shadow Clarke jury and that of the Man Booker International Prize, and I was hoping to include a title in translation here. Sinisalo has been on my to-read list for some time, so this is a perfect opportunity. Beside all of that, I just love the premise of a novel revolving around illegal chilli peppers in a state where personal welfare is the law. The Core of the Sun was an easy selection for my list.
The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead. I heard a lot of praise for Whitehead’s previous novel, Zone One, but never got around to reading it myself. I’ve heard a lot of praise for Whitehead’s new novel, and this time I’m going for it. The book is an alternate history in which the ‘Underground Railroad’ of escape routes used by African American slaves is not just a network of routes and safe houses, but an actual railroad. Sounds intriguing: on to my list it goes.
What will I be looking for in these books? I hope to be surprised, challenged, made to think again about important questions. I’ll be looking for books that pay attention to their writing, and find ways to embody in language the story they want to tell.
But if I don’t get any of that, and there’s a book here that makes me wonder what I was thinking in selecting it… Well, that’s all part of the Clarke experience too. Bring it on!